English Channel swimming facing ban?

The original blog by Nicola George is posted (with pictures) on her blog since Wednesday, November 3rd, 2010 at 12:02 pm

Friends and colleagues texted, emailed, Twittered and Facebooked me on Monday about the BBC’s news that authorities are calling for a ban on English Channel swims. “Dangerous,” they call the swims. Well, yes. Like most extreme sports, Channel swimming isn’t completely predictable, and it’s not something you can do unless your wits are about you. There’s no cotton wool. No bubble-wrap. Not even wetsuits. I doubt we’d want to do it if there was.

Swimming in open sea is inherently dangerous. But, as someone who’s swum it twice (and crewed or observed on countless swims), I can also tell you it’s very well regulated. It’s made as safe as it can possibly be. Safety is paramount, and the skipper’s word is final. If he thinks there’s a significant risk, you – the swimmer – are out of the water, like it or not.

The story quotes the largest fear being “a collision” between traffic and swimmer. I can’t see how this would happen – as a swimmer, you can stop with a split-second’s notice, and your boat is in contact with coastguard, has GPS and is in radio contact with other vessels.

Like most swimmers, I can recall coming what felt like pretty close to some tankers and ferries, but it really wasn’t that close, and they knew I was there. Whilst observing on other people’s swims, I have heard over the radio that a vessel was heading for us. Even the fastest swimmer is going so slowly, though, it doesn’t take much tweaking of position and pace to get everyone past each other perfectly safely.

Here’s the BBC Inside Out programme in question (you can watch it for a few days yet and the Channel Swim bit is first – to 11:46).

On guy on the footage compares swimming the English Channel to trying to walk across the M25. Dramatic imagery, I’m sure, but it doesn’t cut it with me. Yes, there were boats (not just tankers and ferries, but yachts, sailboats and leisure boats) but it never felt manic.

The DFDS guy quoted says that, if a swimmer is in the water, “they’re not able to react in the way a vessel is”. Too right. We are able to stop immediately and, if necessary, get onto the boat which can then turn sharply and motor away.

For those of you who know nothing about Channel swimming, it should be pointed out that every swimmer (or every relay team) is accompanied by a dedicated pilot vessel. There’s an internationally-recognised flag symbolising a swimmer in the water, which is flown from the boat. And the boat is kitted out with high-tec GPS and is in radio contact with other vessels and both coastguards.

Have you swum the Channel, or any similar swim? Have you crewed, observed, supported a Channel swim? What do you think?

A few notes from me on the footage:

- what a lovely day those swimmers had! Don’t be fooled – it is most certainly not always that flat or sunny out there!

- at 06:45 on the footage, the voiceover sounds surprised at seeing about a dozen people training on Dover beach. Ha ha! Try going down for the first weekend of the season (first May Bank Holiday). As Barrie and Freda both say on the Inside Out footage, you can’t move for swimmers nowadays. I remember a much quieter, much more niche group – and I first set foot on the training beach in 2003. Not that long ago! The sport really has exploded in popularity in the last few years.

- love the GPS imagery of Channel traffic

- also love the footage of UK coastguards at work. Whilst asleep on Channel swim boats (for instance, during my two-way relay), I used to love the soporific sound of the uber-polite, gentle coastguard voices over the radio. “A safe passage to you, Sir…”